"Thank you for shopping at Food Barn," Courtney Davis smiled as she handed the old man at her register his change and receipt.
Before turning to the next customer in line, the thirty-eight year old brunette glanced up at the large clock on the wall, relieved to see that she only had only a few hours to go until her work day was over. Not that it was a bad job, Courtney often thought, she'd had ones that were worse. It just got monotonous after a while.
The way she saw it, aside from the people who actually ran the store, the people who worked at Food Barn, like most other supermarkets, fell into four categories.
First there were the students of course, who liked the non-demanding, at least mentally, work and the flexible hours that let them work around their classes. Then there were the housewives with kids now grown enough to be able to look after themselves, who needed extra money or just something to do other than sit alone in an empty house. Next came the retirees, also looking for something to do as well as a supplement to their pensions.
Finally, there was the last category, the one in which she fell in. People for whom this actually was their career. Which wasn't as bad as it sounded, Courtney reminded herself. While she would never be rich, she knew, her salary and the alimony checks from her ex-husband allowed her to live a comfortable, if ordinary life. Which, in the long run, was all she wanted.
Courtney had married Jim Davis, three years her senior, right out of high school. Finishing college, he'd gone on to medical school while she, putting aside her own plans, went off to work to support the two of them. It was a struggle at times, but they'd made it and by the time they celebrated their fifteenth anniversary, Jim had taken over the practice from the doctor he'd gone to work for after his internship. Their future seemed promising indeed, or so Courtney thought.
What happened next was something that Courtney had heard of, but never imagined happening to her. Now successful and moving in the circles he'd striven for, Jim decided that he needed a wife that could help advance, not hinder his career. Someone who would fit in with the wives of the doctors on the hospital board he was trying to join and discuss society matters, not the best way to get the bathroom clean.
For the first time in their marriage, Courtney had been glad that they'd been unable to have children. If Jim wanted out of their marriage, well then she was more than happy to let him go. After all, who wanted to stay in a loveless marriage. But, she told him, it was going to cost him.
He was wrong if he thought she was stupid simply because she hadn't gone to college. Finding the best lawyer she could, Courtney worked out exactly how much she'd contributed to his career over the years. If Jim wanted his freedom, he was going to have to pay her that back as well as give her a percentage of all future earnings. The monthly checks weren't enough to live on alone, but it gave her enough of a cushion that she would be comfortable.
Reluctantly, Jim agreed, with the stipulation of course that the alimony portion of the payments would end when she got remarried. A condition, to his surprise, Courtney agreed to. It was a stipulation, however, that hadn't worked out as Jim expected. He was sure that, in a year, two at most, Courtney would be remarried and he would be off the hook for at least the long-term aspect of his debt. But the year passed, then a second, followed by a third. Finally, he got the message. Courtney would never let any man control her life again. Oh she would have lovers of course, going so far as to live with a few for a time. But her ring finger would forevermore remain bare. Her life, she told him, however it went, would be on her terms.
Two more customers paid for their shopping orders and Courtney closed out her register to take her break. Rather than grab a cup of coffee in the small break room in the back of the store, she decided to get a breath of fresh air. Turning over the station to her relief, she headed out to the large parking lot.
Walking over to Coffee King, a small specialty coffee shop across the lot, Courtney decided to indulge herself and brought one of those overpriced special brews. She couldn't understand how people could spend that much money day in and out, but once and a while she gave in to temptation. A characteristic she applied to many things in her life.
"Hi Courtney," a young, soft voice from behind the display said as the counter girl recognized her customer. "What will it be today?"
"Hi back, Alicia," Courtney smiled as she looked up and quickly scanned the wall-mounted menu. "Why don't we try today's special," she answered, thinking that the chocolate concoction looked especially delicious.
"Good choice," the short haired blonde said as she rang up the order, "I think that's the best one they've come out with in a while."
Although not as frequent a customer as many people in the shopping center, Courtney came in often enough to know that Alicia wasn't the type to sell patrons on the product. Not that she probably couldn't if she wanted to, at least among the male population that walked through the doors to the store. With large breasts, a pretty face and a blouse perhaps just a size too small, the counter girl could recommend dishwater and some men would order it. Three open top buttons also usually guaranteed what change there was from their purchase usually wound up in her tip cup.
Using the labels she created for Food Barn, Courtney would put Alicia Young in the student category. From earlier conversations, she knew the twenty year old went to the local university and was studying to be a nurse. Seeing the medical books on the counter one day, Courtney had struck up a conversation and offered her some advice about watching out for doctors to be. Rather than be put off by the unsolicited advice, Alicia had thanked her for it and a casual friendship had developed.
Deciding she had time to sit and enjoyed her pricey beverage rather than rush back to work, Courtney sat at an empty booth in the back of the store. Scanning a newspaper someone had left behind, she didn't notice Alicia standing next to her until the last second.
"It was just about time for my break too," she said in way of explanation, "do you mind if I join you?"
In her hand was a duplicate of the drink that Courtney had just bought. Motioning to the empty seat across from her, the older woman invited the girl to sit down.
"I hope you at least get a discount on that," Courtney said as she remembered how much her own drink had cost.
"In this place," Alicia laughed, "are you kidding?"
"Well then, enjoy it," Courtney replied with a grin, knowing how much, or little, the girl probably made working here.
They spent the next ten minutes trading small talk, about school and work. As in their past chats, Courtney found she genuinely enjoyed talking to the blonde haired student. In many ways, she reminded her of herself at that age. The big difference, of course, that Alicia seemed smart enough to not let anyone else run her life for her. With no relatives closer than two states away and only a few friends at school, Alicia appreciated their talks as well.
"Well I better get back," Courtney said as she glanced at her watch. "It was nice talking with you again."
"Me too," Alicia agreed, but in a voice that made Courtney think she wanted to say something more.
An impression that made her hesitate long enough to give Alicia the time to do just that. Alicia hesitated for a few moments, then went on, her voice much lower than if had been.
"Courtney, can I ask you something?" she said.
"Of course," came the reply without hesitation.
"It's kind of personal," Alicia added, as if to give warning.
"Those are the most interesting kinds of questions," Courtney smiled, assuring the girl that she could ask anything.
Alicia hesitated again, taking the time to look around the sitting area and note that more people had sat down since she had joined Courtney.
"I'll walk you outside," Alicia finally said. "This is sort of private."
"Fine," Courtney agreed, her curiosity abounding.
Telling her co-worker behind the counter that she'd be right back, Alicia led Courtney out the side door to an area behind the store where they were unlikely to be seen or overheard. Even so, she took another look around the corner to make sure they were alone.
Curiosity was quickly giving way to concern as Courtney saw the extremes Alicia was going to. For some reason, she was suddenly reminded of the night when she was two years younger than Alicia and her best girlfriend in high school, Julie Moskowitz had confided to her that she'd let her boyfriend go all the way and was now in trouble. Taking a breath, Courtney hoped the girl across from her wasn't in a similar situation.
Not wanting to rush her, whatever the case, Courtney simply waited until the girl was ready to talk. If she were late getting back, well then her boss would get over it.
"Now that I finally get the chance, I don't exactly know how to ask this," Alicia said.
"I've found that straight out is usually the best way," Courtney offered, thinking also that this was obviously something Alicia had been considering for a long time.
"I'm worried that if I'm wrong you might take offense at what I wanted to ask," she added.
"Friends don't take offense," Courtney offered.
"Are we really friends?" Alicia asked.
"I like to think so," Courtney replied, relieved that whatever Alicia wanted to talk about, it didn't seem to be what she had originally feared.
.... There is more of this story ...